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Fear and Trembling

Soren Kierkegaard

Preliminary Expectoration - Part 1

Eulogy on Abraham

Preliminary Expectoration - Part 2

Summary

The remainder of Fear and Trembling is given over to a series of three "problemata" which are prefaced by a "preliminary expectoration." Johannes begins by reflecting on the saying "only one who works earns bread," that it is not true of the unjust, external world, but that it is true in the world of the spirit. We all know that Abraham is great and think this sufficient, yet very few of us are willing to do the necessary work to understand his story. Abraham did more than a merchant would do in giving up his money: Abraham felt anxiety as a result of the ethical obligation he had to his son.

Johannes imagines the case of a man, who, hearing a preacher praise Abraham's sacrifice, returns home planning to kill his son: the man is only following the words of the preacher. The preacher failed to convey what made Abraham great and so condoned this man's behavior. The ethical expression of Abraham's behavior is that he tried to murder Isaac. The religious expression of his behavior is that he tried to sacrifice Isaac. Any murderer can emulate Abraham on an ethical level, but to emulate him on a religious level requires faith.

If he were to speak about Abraham, Johannes suggests that first, he would say that Abraham was God-fearing: otherwise God would not have tested him. Second, he would describe in detail the love Abraham had for Isaac, a love far greater than the usual love between father and son. Third, he would note that Abraham was free at every moment to change his mind and not sacrifice Isaac. Fourth, Johannes would remark that he himself is not a man of faith, and that though he can speak about Abraham, he could not emulate him.

Johannes complains that no one praises faith. We assume that having faith is easy compared to doing philosophy, but, Johannes remarks, he can understand Hegel but not Abraham. Philosophy is not faith, nor can it give us faith, nor can it convince us that faith is worthless. Johannes remarks once more that he is not a man of faith and, were he in Abraham's shoes, he would not have behaved as Abraham had. He would be capable of following God's command, but he would also think "all is lost" and be sad that he has to sacrifice his son. He would resign himself to this fate, but this resignation would simply be a substitute for faith. Further, if he loved his son as Abraham had, he would not have gone in the first place. Lastly, if he had done as God had said and received Isaac back at the last minute, he would never be able to overcome the pain of the whole experience and would have trouble being happy with Isaac.

Johannes characterizes Abraham as having faith "by virtue of the absurd": there is no room for human calculation or anything logical in Abraham's faith or, indeed, in God's behavior either. Abraham's faith takes us one step beyond the infinite resignation required to give up Isaac. By virtue of the finite double movement of faith, Abraham gives up Isaac entirely only to regain him once more.

Abraham's story can only teach us amazement. People who think they understand the story and can be moved to faith by it have simply misunderstood the story and failed to make the first movement of resignation, let alone the double movement of faith. Abraham is a paradox from which we cannot derive worldly wisdom.

Commentary

Each of the three problemata takes an ethical question that is supposed to be answered definitively by the Hegelian system and then shows how the story of Abraham contradicts the ethical question as answered. The preliminary expectoration is meant to set up the contrast between the ethical and the religious that will be exploited in the problemata that follow. Kierkegaard also has Johannes use the "preliminary expectoration" to introduce important terms, such as "anxiety," "absurd," "double movement," and "paradox." These terms are all treated in the glossary, but we might do well to touch upon them here as well.

"Anxiety" is a translation of the Danish angest, often rendered as "dread." Roughly speaking, it is a species of fear that has no specific object, but is caused rather by the dizzying awareness of one's freedom to define oneself by one's choices. Abraham's choices and deeds define him as a knight of faith, but set him directly in opposition to the dictates of the ethical life. The responsibility for these choices is entirely Abraham's, and in making them, he defines himself as a knight of faith. He feels anxiety as he faces the choice of whether to exemplify the religious or the ethical way of life.

In saying that Abraham has faith "by virtue of the absurd," Johannes says that Abraham's faith transcends all human and intelligible possibility. There is absolutely no intelligible way that Abraham will get Isaac back, and yet he maintains his faith. Faith goes beyond all reason and everything that can be said or understood. In that sense, faith is absurd: it cannot be explained and it cannot be justified.

Because both the religious and the aesthetic place their emphases on the single individual as opposed to the ethical's emphasis on the universal, there is a worry that the aesthetic may be confused for the religious. The aesthetic is easily attained, whereas the religious requires the "double movement" of faith. In order to exemplify the ethical, one must make the movement of infinite resignation, surrendering one's individual desires to the greater good of the universal. To have faith, one must go further and make another movement, a leap of faith into the absurd, where the individual again becomes important in a direct relationship with God. The religious is distinguished from the aesthetic because only the religious demands this double movement, whereby one renounces everything and then regains everything by virtue of the absurd.

A great deal of this commentary may seem very confusing, but to an extent this cannot be helped. The problem is that Fear and Trembling deals with faith, and asserts that faith is beyond reason, beyond understanding, beyond words. Thus, any attempt to understand it or to explain it is bound to fail. Herein lies a part of the paradox alluded to throughout the work. A paradox is a kind of contradiction, where one derives from certain premises the falsity of those premises. Fear and Trembling takes the Hegelian expression of the ethical as universal and Hegel's praising of Abraham as the father of faith as its premises and shows how the story of Abraham, if accepted as laudable, contradicts the ethics expressed in the Hegelian system. Abraham is a paradox because he cannot be made sense of, because he contradicts ethical principles. On an ethical level, Abraham is a murderer.

What does it mean to say that Abraham is a murderer? If one imagines watching Abraham, all the facts suggest that he is: he silently packs his bags, takes his son to a mountain, and draws a knife to kill him. The only justification for this behavior is that it was God's will, but God's will was expressed in a private covenant between God and Abraham. No one else knows what God said to Abraham, nor can Abraham explain it. Thus, no third party that tries to understand Abraham's behavior according to any kind of moral code will be able to justify what Abraham does.

Johannes tries to clarify this distinction by describing what he would do in Abraham's shoes. He exemplifies the ethical movement of infinite resignation: he accepts that Isaac is lost, but he is unable to enter into a private relationship with God. He cannot simply go and kill Isaac, but must lament his loss and resign himself to his fate. Johannes remarks that his resignation would be a substitute for faith: it is an understandable sentiment, and one that would connect Johannes to sympathetic onlookers. Abraham's faith is beyond understanding, and his ability to draw the knife on Isaac without the slightest sign of remorse could only seem like barbarism to an onlooker.

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